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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, April 4, 2019

Public Petitions Committee 04 April 2019

Agenda: Continued Petitions, New Petition


Contents


Continued Petitions


Countryside Ranger Services (National Strategic Framework) (PE1678)

The Convener (Johann Lamont)

I welcome everyone to the seventh meeting in 2019 of the Public Petitions Committee. There are two items on this morning’s agenda: first, consideration of one new petition and secondly, consideration of three continued petitions. I intend to begin with agenda item 2, which is consideration of the continued petitions, and then go back to the new petition once we have dealt with them.

PE1678, on a national strategic framework for countryside ranger services in Scotland, has been lodged by Ranger Robert Reid on behalf of the Scottish Countryside Rangers Association. The clerk’s note provides a summary of the submissions that we have received since our consideration of the petition in October 2018. The Scottish Government repeats its acknowledgement of the services that Scotland’s rangers provide, but its position has not changed in so far as it still believes that it is a matter for local authorities to decide how to distribute funds. Moreover, in response to the committee’s specific question on the use of returns and reports from local authorities to provide an overall picture of the level of ranger services throughout Scotland, the Government says that, although such reports can be “useful”, local authorities are under no obligation to gather and collate such information.

In its submission, Scottish Natural Heritage provides a full note of the meeting of the ranger development partnership held in January 2019. It refers to that meeting as

“positive ... with much lively discussion”,

and it adds that, at a subsequent meeting with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, there was agreement on

“the need to raise awareness ... of the profile of ranger services in local authorities”.

It considers that, rather than focusing on

“the impact of individual budget decisions”,

the profile of ranger services can be improved by looking at the benefits of those services

“across a range of local authority activity”.

Scottish Natural Heritage also refers to a positive meeting held between its chair and the Scottish Countryside Rangers Association that concentrated on ways to move rangering forward. That includes a “2030 vision” to look

“beyond the current period of significant change/budget uncertainty”

with a further meeting to be held early next year to review progress. SNH states that, during the next 12 months, it will work with the SCRA and the ranger development partnership to refresh

“the policy framework for rangering in Scotland”;

review

“options for reporting on ... ranger services and the benefits they provide”;

co-ordinate

“the development of a training and development programme”;

and support

“the establishment of new junior ranger programmes.”

The petitioner, on behalf of the Scottish Countryside Rangers Association, has provided a further submission that, as the clerk’s note identifies, sets out the SCRA’s aspirational outcomes from the petition, including setting up a working group to identify any reasons for what it refers to as

“the significant decline in Ranger Service posts”;

updating the strategic framework, which is at the core of the petition; and securing

“the future funding of Ranger Services”.

The submission makes it clear that the SCRA does not consider SNH to be

“a suitable agency to lead”

any working group, and adds that it believes that the ranger development partnership

“does not carry sufficient authority and lacks the clear leadership required to look objectively at the various issues.”

Paragraph 12 of the clerk’s note identifies other issues of concern highlighted by the SCRA. Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

It is a matter of concern that the SCRA does not have a lot of confidence in SNH, although it is perhaps understandable, given the history of the issue. It is also a bit concerning that COSLA did not manage to get along to one of the meetings that was arranged, although it seems to be engaging now with regard to preparing a paper with SNH on the future of ranger services.

A wider issue that has been captured by the rangers in the past is preventative spend. It is something that the Parliament and the Government should look at, because, in that respect, the demise of the ranger service certainly seems to be counterproductive. I am keen that we organise a round-table discussion on the way forward, to which we could invite all stakeholders, at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I agree with Angus MacDonald. Given that the SCRA has said that it does not believe that SNH would be a suitable agency to run the working group, we ought to give SNH the opportunity to respond. We should also seek responses from other stakeholders, particularly COSLA, on the issue of funding, the postcode lottery and the fact that there are ranger posts that have still not been filled. Many questions have been raised. We have received highly informative submissions from a number of people, but we need to bring these people together so that we can drill down into the issues.

The Convener

Although it has been acknowledged that there has been a significant decline, the Scottish Government is still saying that the ranger service should be a matter for local authorities. That is problematic. Another small point that was made was that there used to be jobs that served as an introduction to becoming a ranger, but the fact that there is no longer a career path must lead to further decline in the longer term.

Do members agree that we should consider holding a round-table discussion? That would afford an opportunity to explore what the job is, why it is important, why there are challenges with sustainability and, if there is to be a group to bring folk together, which body should play the lead role, if SNH is not considered suitable. Is that agreed?

Angus MacDonald

It is certainly agreed. I hope that COSLA will be invited to the round-table session. We should also try to identify a local authority that still provides support for rangers and invite it to the discussion to give us a positive spin on the job.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I totally understand the Government saying that it is local authorities’ responsibility to provide rangers, but surely it must still have an interest in understanding what is going on at that level. The ranger service cannot just be pushed to one side and allowed to decline in that way. I am sure that the Scottish Government must have an interest in the issue.

The Convener

In its submission, the Government has made it clear that it values the ranger service, but it still says that, as it has handed responsibility for the service to local government, it wants the situation to be resolved at local government level. There is a logic to that, but there is also a problem if the consequence is that the service is not sustainable in the longer term.

If we can agree to take evidence in a round-table format and allow such dialogue to happen, that would be very useful.

Rachael Hamilton

Do we need to agree on who we want to invite to that session? I note, for example, that our paper mentions the rebranding exercises of the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland, which are an important part of the inconsistency that there is concern about.

The Convener

With the committee’s permission, I will take the authority to work with the clerks on a list of organisations to invite. We will make sure that we hear from a broad range of people who are available and willing to participate.


Medical Care (Rural Areas) (PE1698)

The Convener

PE1698, on medical care in rural areas, was lodged by Karen Murphy, Jane Rentoul, David Wilkie, Louisa Rogers and Jennifer Jane Lee. I welcome to the meeting Rhoda Grant, who is attending for our consideration of the petition.

At our previous consideration of the petition on 22 November 2018, we agreed to write to the Scottish Government and the Scottish rural parliament. As members will be aware, submissions from those organisations, as well as a response from Karen Murphy, have been received.

Issues have been raised about the transparency of the remote and rural general practice working group and the scope of its work. We have also recently received correspondence about a troubling development. The vice-chair of the Rural GP Association of Scotland has resigned from the working group, saying:

“it is a committee decision that I should resign from the SLWG (Working Group), and for RGPAS to withdraw from further SLWG work ... We need to see more tangible and convincing commitment to addressing the issues affecting our members and our rural communities in Scotland.”

Despite the questions that have been asked and the submissions that have been received, further scrutiny is required of the calculation of the Scottish workload allocation formula and the implications of the new GP contract. The most recent submission from the Scottish Government states the background to and the intentions behind the new formula, but the specific issues that the petitioners have raised are not addressed sufficiently. That lack of clarity appears to exist both on this issue and on the other issues that the petitioners have raised.

Members will also note that two questions on the topic will be asked at general question time today. Gail Ross’s question is:

“To ask the Scottish Government what steps it plans to take to re-engage the Rural GP Association with its Remote and Rural General Practice Working Group”,

while Donald Cameron’s question is:

“To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support GP practices in rural areas.”

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Brian Whittle

At the moment, the Health and Sport Committee is doing a piece of work on the GP contract. It just so happened that we had a rural national health service board in last week, and when I asked how the contract had been accepted by its GPs, the board was not as candid as I would have liked it to be, but it did say that, although 70 per cent of respondents were positive about it, it was 70 per cent of 30 per cent, as only 30 per cent of GPs replied. The inference seems to be that there is an issue with the GP contract in that rural area.

It would be good to invite the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to the committee and ask for her opinion, and cross-referencing with the work that is being done in the Health and Sport Committee would certainly help.

The Convener

Okay. I invite Rhoda Grant to come in at this point, as she has been working with the campaigners.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

As members know, I cover the Highlands and Islands, and this is a really big issue in my area, given the number of rural GPs. I do not have the figures with me, but I understand that when rural GPs were polled, most were against the contract, with only a very low number supporting it.

The new contract does not recognise the differences in how people operate in rural areas. For example, there can be higher numbers of home visits, because people are being kept out of hospital. Instead of elderly people being sent away, they get more hands-on care. Moreover, GPs are responsible for local hospitals in places such as Campbeltown and Golspie, so they have additional—and specialist—work that is not recognised in the contract. The way in which the contract was drawn up has really impacted on the morale of rural GPs, who often work above and beyond and do not feel that they are valued.

The contract also flies in the face of the work on tackling the health inequalities that we all recognise. It is working neither for rural areas, nor for deprived urban areas. Because it looks at the number of appointments that are available and at the age profile of patients in a practice, the 10-year life expectancy gap that we all know can exist in deprived areas means that those practices are getting less, given that their patients do not live as long as patients in other areas. The contract seems to have moved funding in a direction opposite to the one that it was understood that funding needed to move in.

To that extent, the whole contract needs to be looked at, but it certainly needs to be looked at with regard to rural GPs, given our struggle to fill posts. If the contract goes unchanged or there are no additional deals for rural practices, the situation will get worse, and the cost of locums is already extremely high for rural health boards.

Rachael Hamilton

There seems to be some disagreement here. The Scottish Government’s submission of October 2018 states:

“The new ... Formula gives greater weight to older patients and deprivation”.

I, too, represent a rural constituency, and I am concerned by the number of GPs who have fed into the Health and Sport Committee’s inquiry, as well as the high number of people who are dissatisfied with the Scottish workload allocation formula. The petitioners and the Scottish Government seem to disagree in what they are saying, and we need to tease that out somehow.

09:45  

The Convener

As I recollect from our previous discussion of the petition, more money is coming into the system, but money is also being taken out of poor communities and rural areas, which seems counterintuitive. I do not know whether the system takes account of the number of appointments; after all, as we know, people in deprived areas bring with them more problems than just the problem with which they present—there can be comorbidities and other issues.

I was struck by how, in one of their submissions, the petitioners expressed a frustration that the significant questions that they had flagged up had simply not been answered in the Scottish Government’s submission. There seems to be a process issue here. I do not pretend to understand it properly, but the issue seems to be that the technical advisory group on resource allocation was not consulted, which would have been the normal process. We will want to explore why that was the case, and it might be useful to bring in the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport so that we can do that.

I hear what Brian Whittle has said about looking at the contract, but there seems to be a specific issue about the subset of rural GPs. In a big city practice, other staff can do various things for GPs so that they do not need to do them, but, in a rural practice, there is not necessarily the range of people to do those other jobs, which increases the pressure on GPs.

Interestingly, the petitioners have flagged up the issue of rural proofing and how that feeds into the Government’s thinking to ensure that it understands what rural or island proofing means in practical terms when such decisions are made. When the Government makes provision for a service right across Scotland, how does it ensure that it considers deprived urban areas, such as those in my region, and rural, remote and fragile areas?

There are two things that I am getting a strong sense of. First, because the short-life working group was not allowed to visit the contract, the Government did not respond to the question that the petitioners raised. Secondly, the petitioners feel that their questions are not being answered, which is quite a big issue.

Brian Whittle

Following on from what the convener and Rhoda Grant have said, one thing that has come out early in our investigation is that it is much less likely for a rural GP to have a team that includes a physiotherapist, a mental health expert and a pharmacy. There is without question a big disparity in that regard, and it is an issue that is not being addressed in the contract.

The Convener

Obviously, people will make their case during the negotiations, but even with special pleading, we will have a major problem if we do not attract GPs to rural areas. Some of the submissions make that point very strongly, because there will be consequences for the sustainability of rural communities.

Rachael Hamilton

The petitioners say that reassurance has been limited and that there could be knock-on effects for the recruitment and retention of GPs. Rural practices are already experiencing those difficulties. After all, GP’s patient lists are increasing, simply because the number of GPs being attracted to such areas is, in some cases, non-existent.

The Convener

If the philosophy is to focus on primary care to ensure that people do not need to jump immediately to acute services, it is important that GP provision is sustainable.

Angus MacDonald

We should not forget that rural GPs had significant concerns even before the contracts were introduced. Given the concerns that have been raised not only by the petitioners, who have expressed frustration in this respect, but also by RGPAS, which stated in its submission that there are serious concerns that the GP contract is not fit for purpose in rural communities, the Government needs to answer a number of questions, and we should consider inviting the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to give evidence on the issue.

The Convener

Do members have any final points?

Rhoda Grant

I just want to emphasise your point about the working group, convener. It was set up to sort the matter out, but if the people on it have no confidence about what is going to happen, it is important that that fact is brought to the cabinet secretary’s attention and that we can see where we can go to ensure that the problem is solved.

The Convener

Do members agree to invite the cabinet secretary to provide evidence on matters raised in the submissions that we have received? We would hope to do that speedily, as we realise that this is an on-going issue that, if not resolved, will have consequences for broader health provision in rural areas.

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

I thank Rhoda Grant for her attendance.


Wildlife Crime (Penalties and Investigation) (PE1705)

The Convener

Our final continued petition is PE1705, lodged by Alex Milne, which calls for a review of legislation relating to the investigation of, and penalties applicable to, wildlife crime in Scotland.

The clerk’s note refers to the Scottish Government’s submission, which states that it intends to bring forward legislation to increase penalties relating to wildlife crime. The petitioner has welcomed that intention and has indicated that he will respond to any consultation that the Government brings forward to inform any primary or secondary legislation.

The petitioner has also provided what he considers to be potential solutions to the current difficulties in presenting video evidence in the context of wildlife crime, and he notes that the challenges were recently discussed as part of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s consideration of the “Wildlife Crime in Scotland: 2017 Annual Report”.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Angus MacDonald

The petitioner has rightly highlighted the issue of video evidence. The ECCLR Committee, of which I am a member, has been looking at this issue for some time, and it has heard that video evidence has, for various reasons, not been used, which is a matter of concern. Given that the ECCLR Committee recently took evidence on the wildlife crime annual report for 2017—we are always a year or sometimes two behind with the annual reports—given that the issue of wildlife crime has been very much on that committee’s radar since it was formed, and given that its predecessor, the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, took the issue extremely seriously, too, there is a good argument for referring the petition to that committee so that it can be given the time and concentration that it deserves.

The Convener

As there appear to be no other views, I thank the petitioner for his substantial response to help with our consideration of the petition. Do we agree to refer the petition to the ECCLR Committee for its consideration as part of its on-going work on wildlife crime and for any potential scrutiny of relevant legislation in this session?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

I again thank the petitioner. I think that significant progress has been made as a consequence of this petition, and the petitioner himself will be able to follow the ECCLR Committee’s continuing consideration of this issue.

I suspend the meeting briefly.

09:54 Meeting suspended.  

09:55 On resuming—